In December 1989, after my first term at Lampeter University ended, I returned to the Midlands and caught up with a few old friends. Paul, who used to work at the Virgin Megastore in Birmingham, had just landed a job with The Cartel, a distribution network set up to ensure that indie labels could get their records in shops across the country. I visited him at his new flat near The Cartel’s Warwick HQ and he proceeded to play me one of the first pressings of a new record which already beginning to cause huge excitement among those who had heard it. It wasn’t hard to see why. Sparsely adorned beats – stoned and spacious – seemed to amplify the airspace. The hook, such as there was one, comprised little more than a sample of a brass section repeated over and over again. Its sense of fun seemed more closely allied to Balearic floor fillers such as The Residents’ Kaw-Liga and The Waterboys’ The Whole of the Moon than straight-ahead dance records. But those were old records that had been co-opted into a new scene. And this was brand new. “Go on. Guess!” said Paul, obviously enjoying the fact that I didn’t stand a chance of getting it. “Give up?” I gave up. He handed me a white label promo . Attached to it was a photocopied sheet of A4 paper: “Primal Scream – ‘Loaded’ – Andrew Weatherall Remix… The ultimate fusion – A Dancefloor Milestone. Out 19-2-90.” Primal Scream?! PRIMAL SCREAM?!?
Whatever the next big thing was going to be, no sane person would have imagined that Primal Scream would be part of it. Having squandered their fey early promise by embracing sub-Stooges cacophony, Primal Scream’s stock had plumbed depths previously considered unplumbable. Salvation though, had come in the form of a chance visit to Danny Rampling’s Shoom. And yet, it was here, dressed incongruously, in full leather get-up that Bobby Gillespie heard a new direction for his band and, crucially, met someone who could facilitate it. By clocking the horn vamp in the dying seconds of an unremarkable smack dirge called I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have and alchemising it into Loaded, Andrew Weatherall threw Primal Scream a lifeline.
Everything had changed in the preceding six months, and perhaps more than any other record, Loaded was the proof. Arriving in Lampeter at the beginning of October, I set up my portable Sanyo record player and – hoping that anyone in my hall of residence might be listening – placed Happy Mondays’ Lazyitis on the turntable. Out of the window I saw a boy in the year above me with a mop of hair, a long sleeved Stone Roses top and the obligatory flared jeans. Perhaps we might become friends. The wider world didn’t know about baggy, but something was clearly fomenting. The Stone Roses’ two month tour in the spring of 1989 had assumed ever more mythical proportions with every passing date. At their Birmingham Irish Centre show, Simon Fowler, frontman with much-fancied local four piece The Fanatics, was so enthused by what he saw that he left his own group and formed a new one called Ocean Colour Scene. If a second wave of baggy bands were forming, the first wave had better get a move on and score a bona fide hit. Inspiral Carpets came close. Their label had been assured that if their summer 1989 single Move landed inside the Top 40, they would be invited onto Top of the Pops. In the event, of course, it was The Stone Roses (Fools Gold) and Happy Mondays (Hallelujah) who shared the honours, appearing on the same episode alongside Fine Young Cannibals (the equally excellent but not baggy I’m Not The Man I Used To Be) and Big Fun (Can’t Shake The Feeling). In Lampeter, I set the video to record whilst standing on my desk, holding the set-top TV aerial outside the open window to maximise the picture quality.
For many music fans, The Stone Roses/Happy Mondays TOTP was as important as David Bowie’s Starman appearance had been to another generation. Aged 20, I was a bit too old to experience an epiphany of quite such proportions, but nevertheless, I was excited. If guitar bands had been able to ignore acid house and carry on unchanged, baggy – or, if you like, the indie-dance crossover – made that almost impossible. Those who did, such as The House Of Love and The Catherine Wheel seemed to lose their audience overnight. Those who adapted convincingly managed to ride the wave. Despite boasting the correct geographical credentials, The Fall were an unlikely addition to the vanguard, but hey, if Happy Mondays could mix up Can’s Tago Mago with a dash of Beefheart and a handful of Funkadelic and turn it into viable chart material, why shouldn’t Mark E. Smith stand a chance? Alas, The Fall’s indie-dance years didn’t quite yield a proper hit single, but it wasn’t for want of trying. Telephone Thing came close. Free-Range stalled at 40, but it took a cameo on Inspiral Carpets’ I Want You in 1993 to secure Smith his first Top of the Pops appearance. Of the old guard, The Cure hastily assented to an album of remixes called Mixed Up, which saw dance beats grafted onto songs that really didn’t benefit from them: Close To You; In Between Days; The Caterpillar. When Julian Cope returned after a three year absence with Peggy Suicide, its lead singles Beautiful Love and East Easy Rider were both clearly designed to snap into line with post-baggy orthodoxy. Even My Bloody Valentine were at it – enlisting Weatherall to sprinkle stardust onto their 1990 single Soon, whilst The Telescopes – very much the Scrappy Doo to MBV’s Scooby – started wearing white jeans and released the unmistakeably groovy Flying.
For the mix accompanying this piece, I’ve interspersed a few Madchester pace-setters (Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, The Charlatans, Inspiral Carpets) with a selection of groups – both Mancunian and otherwise – who followed closely in their wake. There are several bands here who were critically eviscerated almost as soon as their first records were announced. This is nothing new, of course. If you’re not driving the bandwagon, you’ll always be regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. However, in my corner of Wales, the records that excited us the most barely warranted a mention in the pages of NME, Melody Maker and Select. Major labels had been slow to secure the services of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, but that merely amplified the frenzy to sign second-generation baggy acts like Paris Angels (Virgin) and Top (Island). By 1990, Ocean Colour Scene had released just one indie single on the Phfftt imprint. So desperate were Fontana to sign the group that they bought the entire label outright. Not that any hits were forthcoming. Like Blur, who suddenly seemed like a spent force when Bang failed to follow There’s No Other Way into the top ten, they would have to look beyond the zeitgeist to ensure their survival.
Just as in the early 60s, the mere possession of a Scouse accent was enough to get you a record deal, being from Manchester in the very early 90s was like having the best cards in the Community Chest all at once. After his band were dropped by Sire, James’ Tim Booth had to volunteer for medical experiments to keep the group going. In 1990 though, he suddenly found himself in the right place at the right time. It didn’t matter that James didn’t sound especially baggy. To major label emissaries permanently stationed in Manchester, James suddenly had currency. Instastella were less a band, more an ad hoc alliance comprised of a glamorous Afflecks Palace shop assistant (Stella) and members of local indie triers Laugh. They only had a handful of songs, but that was all the incentive MCA needed to offer them a deal. Their debut album was, perhaps understandably, a patchy affair. Only in 1993, after MCA had lost interest, did they release their best single, the sumptuous Drifter (featured here).
This industry feeding frenzy played out wonderfully for me and my friends. Every time a baggy act inked themselves a major deal, their paymasters would attempt to justify their investment by hyping them into the charts – a process which involved regional record company reps parking their hatchbacks outside chart return shops, walking in with a box of, say, World Of Twist records which already had the 99p stickers affixed to them and shoving them straight into the racks. The people who ran the shops didn’t care. They made 99p on each record sold. And me and my friends didn’t care. We had a ready source of cheap records. Some of them were rubbish, of course, but a lot of them were fantastic: released by Fontana, a version of Bongwater’s The Drum by two teenage girls from Halifax called The Impossibles received a sublime overhaul from Andrew Weatherall; Five Thirty bought themselves a wah-wah pedal, plugged it in and used it to write their best song 13th Disciple: The Mock Turtles didn’t show huge promise, but they had a b-side called Can You Dig It, which was surely the only reason that Virgin wanted them on their roster.
The Real People had made a few ropey blue-eyed soul records in the mid-80s as JoJo & The Real People, but after The La’s came along, they lost JoJo and reinvented themselves as white-bread purveyors of neo-Merseybeat. Their first album found favour with few people other than Inspiral Carpets roadie Noel Gallagher, who would base the sound of his own band on it. However, the lead single from The Real People’s eponymous debut saw them belatedly nail their colours to the baggy mast. Produced by Stephen Street, the 12-inch version of Window Pane sounded magnificent from the off: a collision of gurgling hammond organ and surging powerchords riding Tony Elson’s beat to a climax of irresistible euphoria. Similarly, you could hear traces of Lee Mavers’ worldview in the first and best single from fellow Liverpudlians Top. She’s Got All The World sounds exactly like The La’s trying to play Fools Gold. Nothing more, nothing less.
Some bands saw which way the wind was blowing and willingly changed direction. Others were more resistant. Having signed a new deal with Creation, The Lilac Time recorded a beautifully reflective set called Astronauts. Under pressure from manager and label boss Alan McGee to deliver something commercial, Stephen Duffy surrendered one of the album’s songs to a remix from labelmates Hypnotone. Though incongruous when heard in the middle of Astronauts, the Ryvita snare sound and misfiring bleeps of the resulting track Dreaming have weathered the decades well. The same, surprisingly, can be said for one or two of Northside’s better songs. The Manchester quartet’s debut single Shall We Take A Trip is better known for the fact that it bears no lyrical or musical resemblance to any experience undergone by any human being on any drug, save for perhaps anyone who has ever attempted to overdose on neat Kia-Ora. Still, hindsight has been kind to its gormless exuberance: ditto the breathlessly eager syncopations of Take Five (included here). Manchester’s ability to supply labels with a ready supply of fame-hungry opportunists showed no sign of letting up in the year after Fools Gold and Hallelujah became hits. 808 State acted as prime enablers for MC Tunes by sampling I Am The Resurrection and ensuring that Tunes Splits The Atom became a no-brainer hit.
Down south, fast responses to the rise of baggy were abetted by Jeff Barrett’s Heavenly imprint, who signed Flowered Up and Saint Etienne. It’s easy to see why Flowered Up aroused suspicion at first. Fronted by a psychedelic barrow boy Liam Maher, the combination of his elliptical pronouncements and a group whose sound owed as much to Gong as it did New Order, made them seem like a bizarro-world Happy Mondays. But that’s not too far from what they were. Weekender is rightly venerated as one of the defining records of its era, but It’s On gets no less brilliantly strange with the passing of time – Liam ricocheting off the melody being hammered out beneath him in a wholly different time signature. As with Shaun Ryder at his best, it’s a performance shot through with lateral lightning bolts of lyrical inspiration that have defied interpretation (or, indeed, anyone to post them onto a single lyric site in the past two decades). Two middle-class young men from Croydon, Saint Etienne were anything but dissolute, but Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs were quick to recognise that acid house might be to their generation was punk was to a generation who hadn’t realised it really was possible to do it yourself. Their dub reworking of Neil Young’s sacred text Only Love Can Break Your Heart was, in its way, every inch a match for the original – but for this mix I’ve plumped for Pete Heller’s less celebrated balearic reboot of their second single Kiss And Make Up.
The post-baggy goldrush isn’t painted in a terribly good light by pop historians these days, but in any musical era, it’s the more ersatz, guileless examples of any genre that sum up the spirit of the times more than the cooler forerunners. It seems amazing to me that even the most craven of the groups included were unafraid to get funky and at least try and get their audience moving. In this century, indie music hasn’t showed a huge amount of interest in making you dance. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s something to do with the seemingly unsupplantable supremacy of tight trousers, which have remained the default go-to legwear of all indie kids in a post-Strokes/Libertines world. I thought the return of The Stone Roses might inspire younger bands to vary up the beats a little. Instead, they came and went once again, without leaving much impact on anyone beyond the people whose lives they changed the first time around. All of which is a shame. But there was an uninhibited abandon locked into the grooves of these records – be they made by chancers, opportunists, charlatans or, um, The Charlatans – which has all but disappeared from their 21st century offspring.